Run the numbers

Officials in the town of Southwest Harbor are debating whether or not to purchase vehicles for the transportation needs of the town manager and harbormaster.

Currently, those officials are paid mileage. Town Manager Don LaGrange, who drives about 200 miles per month on town business, thinks it would make the bookkeeping simpler and save money if the town bought or leased vehicles for those two officials to use.

There are a lot of variables here for selectmen to consider. While the low mileage requirements might make a lease seem attractive, it is hard to believe that the full cost of ownership, including insurance, maintenance, fuel and depreciation, would be lower than paying a regular mileage allowance.

There is the question of whether to buy a new or used vehicle. Certainly for less than 2 or 3,000 miles a year, it makes no sense to ask taxpayers to shoulder the cost of new, considering it will depreciate faster just sitting around than it will actually being on the road.

In fact, for such low-mile needs, why not convert a retired police cruiser to the manager’s civilian use? It would not be very glamorous but would get the job done.

In the discharge of his duties, the harbormaster could probably use a pickup truck. But, with the cost of new easily exceeding $50,000, used is probably the way to go there, too.

Bar Harbor’s code enforcement officer uses an older model Subaru Forester with minimal upfront cost to the town.

And then there are the invariable policy considerations. Will officials be allowed to conduct personal business while using a town vehicle? Will they be allowed to take them home each evening, thereby increasing the number of miles exponentially? Who will deal with the inevitable citizen complaints that those vehicles are being used for personal errands?

If the worry is that there is too much bookkeeping involved in reporting mileage monthly, then perhaps a regular flat monthly stipend for the use of the manager and harbormaster’s personal vehicles would be in order. Adding insurance coverage for that use would still cost less than full policies on new vehicles.

In the end, selectmen in Southwest Harbor undoubtedly will make a decision that sees to it that the important work of the town gets done while at the same time remaining as fiscally prudent as possible. Having the town acquire, own and maintain additional vehicles may be the first option that comes to mind in this situation, but it may not be the one in the best interest of all in the long run.

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